Terry Eagleton, A Very Short Introduction: The Meaning of Life (Conclusion)

The assumption that the meaning of life is primarily an individual affair is still alive and well. Julian Baggini writes that “the search for meaning is essentially personal,” involving “the power and responsibility to discover and in part determine meaning for ourselves.” John Cottingham speaks of a meaningful life as “one in which the individual is engaged… in genuinely worthwhile activities that reflect his or her rational choice as an autonomous agent.” None of this is false. But it reflects an individualist bias common to the modern age. It fails to register that there can be by definition no meaning, whether of life or anything else, which is unique to myself alone. If we emerge into being in and through one another, then this must have strong implications for the meaning-of-life question.

On the theory I have just proposed, two of the strongest contenders in the meaning-of-life stakes – love and happiness – are not ultimately at odds. If happiness is seen in Aristotelian terms as the free flourishing of our faculties, and if love is the kind of reciprocity which allows this best to happen, there is no final conflict between them. Nor is there a conflict between happiness and morality, given that a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one’s own thriving. There is less need, then, to worry about the kind of life which seems to be meaningful in the sense of being creative, dynamic, successful, and fulfilled, yet which consists of torturing or trampling over others [as Marquis de Sade might have.] Nor, on this theory, is one forced to choose between a number of different candidates for the good life, as Julian Baggini suggests we should. Baggini proposes a range of possibilities for the meaning of life – happiness, altruism, love, achievement, losing or abnegating the self, pleasure, the greater good of the species – and suggests in his liberal fashion that there is some truth in them all. A pick-and-mix model is accordingly advanced. In designer style, each of us can take what we want from these various goods and blend them into a life appropriate for ourselves.

It is possible, however, to draw a line through Baggini’s points and see most of these goods as combinable with each other. Take, as an image of the good life, a jazz group. A jazz group which is improvising obviously differs from a symphony orchestra, since to a large extent each member is free to express herself as she likes. But she does so with a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. The complex harmony they fashion comes not from playing from a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and “the good of the whole,” yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian[ism.] Though each performer contributes to “the greater good of the whole,” she does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing herself. There is a self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, the achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium of relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is a free fulfillment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can even speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love. One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realize our natures at their finest.

Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal. What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless, just as the jazz performance is pointless. Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. It needs no justification beyond its own existence. In this sense, the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness. Religious believers who find this version of the meaning of life a little too laid-back for comfort should remind themselves that God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason, and self-delight, and that only by living this way can human beings be said to share in his life. Believers sometimes speak as though a key different between themselves and non-believers is that for them, the meaning and purpose of life lie outside it. But this is not quite true even for believers. For classical theology, God transcends the world, but figures as a depth within it. As Wittgenstein remarks somewhere: if there is such a thing as eternal life, it must be here and now. It is the present moment which is an image of eternity, not an infinite succession of such moments…


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